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What You Should—and Shouldn't—Eat When You're Pregnant

Which foods are nutritional powerhouses for pregnant women—and which ones are downright dangerous.

Medically reviewed in June 2021

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A healthy diet is important during pregnancy, but you might have to rethink the types of food you consume. Pregnant women need an abundance of some nutrients like folic acid but should err on the side of caution when it comes to eating certain foods. "We all need to be eating a healthy diet," says Sean Edmunds, MD, an OBGYN with St. Mark's Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. "Pregnant women need to have well-balanced nutrition, not only for themselves, but for the health of the baby.”

There's a lot to think about during a pregnancy, and knowing which foods are best for your baby can be tricky. With the help of Dr. Edmunds, we’ll break down the foods you should purge from your pantry and those you should add to your plate.

Medically reviewed in April 2021.

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Skip: raw or smoked seafood

Raw fish—even sushi-grade slices—pose a risk of foodborne illness, like listeria, to the general population. For most, the disease causes symptoms like nausea, vomiting, muscle aches and fever. Maternal foodborne illnesses, however, pose specific risks to the baby, according to Edmunds, including miscarriage, stillbirth, preterm birth and severe health problems following delivery. You don’t need to boycott your favorite sushi joint for the next nine months though. Just choose cooked entrées and vegetable sushi roll options.

Refrigerated smoked seafood, like lox or nova-style salmon, may not be so safe either. If you've got a hankering, reach for canned or shelf-stable varieties or cook your smoked seafood before digging in.

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Skip: undercooked meat

Like raw seafood, undercooked meat and poultry pose a serious risk of foodborne illness, like Salmonella and toxoplasmosis. These can cause uncomfortable symptoms like fever, body aches, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea, as well as increase a woman's risk of stillbirth and miscarriage. If toxoplasmosis is transferred to the baby during pregnancy, it can cause blindness, hearing loss and mental disability later in life.

To protect mother and child, order well-done meat and poultry and check before taking a bite. Your chicken breast should not be pink in the center, and slicing into your filet mignon should reveal no more than a hint of rose in the middle. When grilling at home, steaks and roasts should be cooked until the internal temperature reaches 145 degrees Fahrenheit, ground beef should register 160 degrees and poultry 165 degrees.

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unpasteurized dairy

As a general rule, "you want to avoid any unpasteurized dairy," Edmunds says. "Some women are told to avoid soft cheeses," he adds, "but pasteurized varieties are safe."

Soft cheeses—like brie, gorgonzola and feta—can be made using raw milk, which poses increased risks of foodborne illness, especially for pregnant women. Raw milk products can harbor bacteria like Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria. Pregnant women can eat soft cheeses if the package specifies the product is pasteurized, the process by which food is heated to kill pathogens.

Hard cheeses like American, cheddar and Swiss are rich in calcium, an essential nutrient for expecting mothers, and are typically also made with pasteurized milk. Pregnant and lactating women should aim to consume about 1,000 daily milligrams (mg) of calcium per day, and you can get around 200 mg from a one-ounce serving of cheddar cheese.

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Skip: deli meats

Another common carrier of Listeria is deli meat. Pregnant women are ten times more likely to contract Listeria. They might not present with any symptoms, but they can still pass the infection on to their fetuses. Ham, salami and other cured meats are staples in many lunchtime sandwiches, but given the devastating risks of contracting the disease—for mother and baby—it is best to avoid them.

Skipping these meats, along with hot dogs and premade meat-based salads, is the best way to safeguard your developing child. If you can’t live without deli meats, they can be heated until they reach at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit to kill any present bacteria.

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Skip: sprouts

Raw sprouts make a crunchy addition to salads, sandwiches and stir-fries, but they can be laced with bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella. Even gently cooked sprouts can be risky. Only cooking them at high temperatures can kill dangerous bacteria.

Before cooking and consuming sprouts or other vegetables, Edmunds recommends giving them a thorough rinse. Washing your produce helps reduce the risk of contracting toxoplasmosis.

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Skip: alcohol

There is no amount of alcohol known to be safe during pregnancy. There is also no harmless time to drink it, according to the Centers for Disease Control Prevention. A pregnant woman who consumes alcohol will pass it to her baby, which can up the risk for stillbirth, miscarriage and a range of disabilities known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

Alcohol can interfere with a baby's development. Consumption can lead to learning disabilities; speech and language delays; kidney, heart and bone problems; and facial abnormalities, like a cleft palate.

It's not too late to stop, even if you've been drinking throughout your pregnancy. The sooner you stop sipping, the better off you and your baby will be. Services, like Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and local alcohol treatment centers, are available. Don’t hesitate to speak with your healthcare provider about getting help.

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Savor: spinach

Each of our bodies needs ample quantities of specific nutrients, like calcium and folate, but pregnant women often need a bit more. "Folic acid is a building block for DNA," Edmunds says. "Where the baby is rapidly growing, folic acid is important for development." Folate and folic acid can help prevent birth defects of the brain, spine and spinal cord.

Calcium is essential for the healthy growth and development of the baby's bones, teeth and heart. Loading your diet with nutrient-rich foods like spinach is a good way to consume the daily recommendations.

Most doctors will still recommend taking a prenatal vitamin that contains these and other nutrients, but adding greens into your daily meals, in the form of salads, soups, pastas and smoothies, can help you reach your goal of 1,000 mg of calcium and 400 to 1,000 mcg of folate.

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Savor: Beans and lentils

The body uses protein to help grow and maintain bone, muscle and skin cells, "so not getting enough protein can affect development, and hurt the woman's health," Edmunds says. The proper portion of protein is different for everyone. The recommended daily allowance is at least 8 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight. Still, pregnant women should consume more, about 71 grams, to help promote fetal growth.

Expectant mothers also should aim to consume 27 mg of iron per day, as well. Iron is needed to help create hemoglobin; the red blood cells responsible for delivering oxygen throughout the body.

Protein and iron are found abundantly in beans and lentils. Per cooked cup, black beans contain 12 grams of protein and 14.4 mg of iron. Lentils, meanwhile, have 15.5 grams of protein, along with 5.75 mg of iron. These plant-based proteins also contain a healthy dose of iron, with 14.4 mg in a serving of beans and 5.75 in a cup of lentils.

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Savor: low-mercury seafood

Not all seafood is safe for pregnant women. "There are certain fish to avoid because of high mercury content, but these are rare things, like shark, swordfish and mackerel," Edmunds says. Even certain types of tuna contain high levels of mercury, so speak with your healthcare provider about which kinds are safe to consume. Too much mercury can hinder the development of the baby's nervous system.

However, certain low-mercury options, like shrimp or salmon, can be a healthy dietary addition. Seafood is loaded with good-for-you nutrients, like healthy fats, protein and iron.

But how much is safe? The US Food and Drug Administration recommends consuming 8 to 12 ounces a week is safe, which is about two or three weekly servings. If you're concerned, it doesn't hurt to consult your doctor as well.

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Savor: broccoli

This cruciferous vegetable is loaded with folate and calcium. Respectively, these nutrients help prevent birth defects and build strong bones and teeth. Broccoli also contains a healthy dose of fiber, which helps keep your digestion in check and can aid in constipation relief. Enjoy a few florets with a side of hummus or mashed avocado. Mix this veggie into your next stir fry or try it roasted with chopped garlic and a drizzle of olive oil.

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Enjoy in moderation: coffee

You have heard the unfortunate myth that coffee is off-limits during pregnancy, and to some degree, it might be. Much research has debated the effects of caffeine and miscarriage risks, but results remain inconclusive. Some research has linked excess caffeine consumption, even prior to conception, to an increased risk of miscarriage, but experts are still not clear about how much is too much.

Recent analyses suggest even the amount of caffeine thought to be safe during pregnancy, between 150 and 200 mg per day, might be associated with miscarriage. Edmunds believes a daily cup is OK for mother and baby, but it's probably best to consult your physician.

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Enjoy in moderation: soda

Sugary soda isn't likely a healthy drink option for anyone, but pregnant women may want to be especially cautious of their intake. When consumed daily, sugar-sweetened soft drinks have been linked to increased risks of preterm birth, asthma and trouble with memory and learning. Some research suggests the same risks may also be associated with regular consumption of diet soda.

The results of this research are not conclusive, but it may be best for your baby's safety and your own health to limit your soda intake. "There's no known deficit of having a soda a day, but limiting sugar-sweetened sodas and artificially-sweetened sodas is recommended," Edmunds says. Pregnant women who drink soda should follow the same caffeine consumption guidelines as coffee drinkers—no more than 200 mg per day. On average, a 12-ounce can of cola has around 30 mg, although it’s best to limit your intake.

Sources:
FoodSafety.gov. “People at Risk: Pregnant Women.” September 25, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Toxoplasmosis: Pregnancy FAQS.” September 4, 2020.
Mayo Clinic. “Toxoplasmosis.” October 13, 2020.
FoodSafety.gov. “Safe Minimum Cooking Temperatures Chart.” April 12, 2019.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “Nutrition During Pregnancy.” June 2020.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Cheddar Cheese.” Accessed June 18, 2021.
Leanne Denny, Sarah Coles and Robin Blitz. “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.” American Family Physician. October 15, 2017.
Oregon State University. “Folate.” 2014.
Mayo Clinic. “Pregnancy diet: Focus on these essential nutrients.” December 19, 2019.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Lentils.” Accessed June 18, 2021.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Black Beans.” Accessed June 18, 2021.
Shanti Menon. “Mercury Guide.” NRDC. March 10, 2016.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Advice about Eating Fish: For Women Who Are or Might Become Pregnant, Breastfeeding Mothers, and Young Children.” December 29, 2020.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Broccoli, raw.” Accessed June 18, 2021.
American Pregnancy Association. “Caffeine During Pregnancy.” April 27, 2016.
KidsHealth.org. “Can I Still Drink Coffee While I'm Pregnant?” August 2019.
Hallie Levine. “Drinking soda during pregnancy.” Babycenter. May 28, 2021.
Cohen, J., Rifas-Shiman, S. L., Young, J., & Oken, E. “Associations of Prenatal and Child Sugar Intake With Child Cognition.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine. June 1, 2019.
Lakiea S. Wright, Sheryl L. Rifas-Shiman, Emily Oken, Augusto A Litonjua, Diane R. Gold. “Prenatal and Early-life Fructose, Fructose-containing Beverages, and Mid-Childhood Asthma.” Annals of the American Thoracic Society. December 2018.
Al-Zalabani AH, Elahi IN, et al. “Association between soft drinks consumption and asthma: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” BMJ Open. October 14, 2019.

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